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Protecting the Bay means supporting farmers as they explore new solutions

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Protecting the Bay means supporting farmers as they explore new solutions

Jun 06, 2024 | 6:37 pm ET
By Barb Glenn
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Protecting the Bay means supporting our farmers to explore new solutions
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Spencer Pugh/unsplash.com.

A drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge will have anyone wanting to protect its beauty. No one feels this more deeply than the farmers and communities up and down the Bay.

For decades, these farmers have been stuck between responding to economic forces to increase production while trying to ensure farm sustainability and prioritize water quality. Despite significant progress, it’s estimated that nearly half of the nitrogen reaching the Bay today comes from farms in the Chesapeake watershed – the largest estuary in the United States, with shared responsibility for nutrient management across several states.

Farmers have long relied on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, which provide a major source of nutrients to grow their crops, but at a cost to the environment. Given the complexity of managing nutrients to protect the Bay, it is time for farmers to have all available tools at their disposal and new crop nutrition technologies are gaining their attention.

Biostimulants are made up of natural materials that enhance the uptake of nutrients in the plant. Geomaterials are naturally occurring minerals that have been shown to improve nutrient use. Biologicals like microbial nitrogen help plants create their own nitrogen and replace a portion of synthetic fertilizers. New crop nutrition options have the potential to stem the tide of nitrate pollution and achieve our nutrient goals for the Bay.

Researchers estimate that meeting nutrient targets would require taking almost half of the region’s roughly 8.2 million acres of farmland out of production or instituting other, similarly dramatic actions. These radical ideas would almost certainly hurt local farm income and negatively impact our region’s ability to contribute to the wider food supply. They are neither practical nor realistic.

More on-farm research is needed, but microbial nitrogen is one promising tool that can offer an effective solution for farmers. This crop nutrition tool may enable farmers to replace about a quarter of synthetic nitrogen needs per acre, without sacrificing yield, and may improve water quality over time.

Microbials can build soil health and improve plant uptake of nutrients, they are safer to transport and remain cost competitive despite volatility across global markets. As a result, farmers can build their on-farm sustainability, increase the watershed’s biodiversity and reduce nitrate runoff, directly addressing many of the environmental issues threatening the Bay.

Farmers are dedicated to the land. They do all they can to improve efficiency of on-farm nutrient use to improve their crops. As a Maryland small farmer, I have seen firsthand the progress our agricultural community has made in lessening our environmental impact. But these changes cannot be left to our farmers alone. They need local, state and federal support to increase adoption.

Cost-share incentives must be provided that give farmers the opportunity to make the transition to microbial nitrogen or other new crop nutrition products. State nutrient management plans and other sustainability programs are a good start, but we need to study and create more pathways for long-lasting changes that reduce risk and make sense for farm businesses and the environment.

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed has been home to generations of farmers, thanks to its rich supply of natural resources and centralized location on the East Coast. Today, one-third of the watershed is dedicated to farming. Even those who fiercely advocate for water improvements recognize that retaining this farmland is a critical component for the future of the Bay region.

To protect our state’s rich agricultural history and the shining beacon that is the Bay, it’s time we embrace new agriculture technologies such as microbial fertilizer to ensure the natural resources and beauty of our region are enjoyed by generations to come.